Recently, our teaching practice was questioned (via social media, the standard way to challenge people these days) over a photo which, to this individual didn’t look like “traditional Meisner”. It was a strange instance because I find it very hard to look at a photo and gain the exact context of when it was taken, what was happening, what stage of training it was etc. If you were to think of rehearsal photos in a theatrical programme, what may look like an actor deep in thought about their craft, or deep in thought within a scene may in fact have just been a great candid photo of an actor choosing between Pret or Nando’s for lunch. Without context, we’ll never know! In any case, the apparent misunderstanding was cleared up and on we all went with our lives, happily until I had the idea to write this blog, not based on challenging the person who questioned the photo, that’s irrelevant, more on the idea of “traditional Meisner”.
Nobody teaches The Meisner Technique
Whenever I teach this work, I make a very keen effort to stress that we do not teach “The Meisner Technique”, in fact, our website sub heading is ‘Meisner BASED training for professional actors’. To go further than that, I would suggest that only one person ever taught the Meisner Technique and that was Sanford Meisner himself. Those practicing today teach their interpretation of the work, probably based on how it was taught to them plus a refined process of their own experiences whilst teaching the work, wider reading and research. I have my own ways of explaining concepts, my own examples of exercises and acting/life circumstances. Whilst the sequence of exercises, the bricks we add in building up actors brick-by-brick to become truthful and authentic humans/actors is incredibly faithful to Meisner’s work, my teaching is my teaching, and that’s really how it should be. To call oneself a “purist” is a little tricky in that, if you were trained by Meisner himself and you’re a purist, that’s great, but are you regurgitating his words without really getting to grips with or grasping the concepts and the ideas of it? Or even further, if you are a purist to a teacher who isn’t Meisner himself, are you being pure to Meisner’s technique, or the technique taught to you by your own teacher, who in turn probably had their own interpretation of the work.
I believe that knowledge passed down through generations should not only be enriched by experience but also the current day needs of the actor, and what’s going on in the world today. For instance, there has been a ton more research in to the way in which the human brain and body respond to situations and trauma, the functions of various parts of the brain and so on. Knowledge and research which Meisner wouldn’t have had access to at the time. I’d be careless not to now include that in the work as I can give my students a different level of understanding. Thus enriching the work, rather than diluting it.
At Both Feet, our training stays faithful to the core principles of the technique. We feel we have a responsibility to the work, but also to actors coming to us to train in The Meisner Technique. We have a common teaching influence between all of us in Scott Williams. Scott trained with Meisner himself and successfully teaches the work in the UK and abroad with the Impulse Company. What makes Scott an exceptional teacher of the work is that he has taken what he learnt from Meisner and refined/synthesised the work in to a crystal clear, no nonsense form which is exactly what most actors need in today’s industry. He doesn’t simply regurgitate Meisner’s work verbatim, he is his own teacher. Our work is primarily influenced by Scott however, we all have a series of other influences to draw upon between us including working with Moment to Moment Acting, The William Esper Studio and The Neighbourhood Playhouse. Therefore to say we teach purely “Meisner’s way” is a falsehood, we have a load of influences, never mind our own journeys in teaching the work which shape how we do things today. I feel no shame in saying I was not trained by Meisner himself, in fact, I’m blessed to have such a wide pool of influences to draw upon so that, when a student has a problem one language can’t fix, I have something else in back up. Not only that, but I have training in other ways of working, beyond the Meisner Technique, which can become useful if a student is struggling. The wider your toolbox as a teacher, the more tools you can give your students.
Speaking of a widening toolbox, we are huge fans of collaboration. In the last year we have been working on integrating the practices of The Meisner Technique with Fitzmaurice Voicework, in collaboration with Fitz teacher Matthew Dudley and the results have been phenomenal. There are a load of other practices out there in the world with which I want to experience and attempt to twin up with this work. Meisner didn’t own the market on good and truthful acting, there are other ways, and I’m excited about all the things we can explore alongside our practice. Other things which can enrich and push the boundaries further, ‘to boldly go where no one has gone before’ to borrow a phrase. Whilst this might scare traditionalists, I am nothing but excited at the potential.
Meisner spent 55 years at the Neighbourhood Playhouse refining his work, in that time I’m sure he tried new exercises, failed a ton, tweaked, played, tinkered with all aspects of his work. If I am still regurgitating the teaching I am doing now in 55 years, I dread to think how bored I will be of myself saying the same words, our aim at Both Feet is to drive the work forward and that is what we are trying to do, consistently. It’s the search for perfection, that keeps the artist chasing, and we are as much artists as the actors we teach.
1+1 = 3
One of my teachers at drama school, Paul Barker, taught me an extremely valuable lesson on my fist day. 1+1 = 3. What he meant by that was that when you combine 2 elements, you can create something which has value greater than the sum of it’s parts. Music plus lyrics becomes a song, song plus story becomes a musical etc. I like to remind myself of this when I am teaching and looking for inspiration. I’m very confident that, in searching for something, I will make mistakes or an exercise won’t quite work. But it’s worth it for the moment something really clicks. I’m very fortunate that our students at Both Feet trust our teaching enough to try something fully, without fear. They are wonderful, open actors and human beings (hey industry, you should hire them and keep hiring them, they’re wonderful).
By Adam Stadius